Parents say son kicked off bus because of race, seek $500,000 from Janesville

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Marcia Nelesen
Friday, December 13, 2013

JANESVILLE--A Janesville family is demanding $500,000 from the city after a Nov. 7 incident on a Janesville bus that the family's attorney claims was racist.

The city in a news release Friday afternoon denies the “characterization placed by the student's parents upon the actions, statements and motivations of the Janesville bus driver involved.”

The bus driver no longer works for the city, City Manager Mark Freitag said.

The city also released a video of the incident, which can be viewed at gazettextra.com/video/bus_lawsuit.

Taji Muhammad and Shytivia Turner-Muhammad hired Amy Scarr to represent them and their 15-year-old son.

Scarr, reached Friday afternoon, was surprised the city had issued a statement.

Scarr said she has not filed a claim but sent a letter detailing the Muhammads' position as requested by the city's attorney, Gregg Gunta. She said she has been waiting for the city's response.

She said $500,000 was a “starting point” in what she thought would be private settlement discussions.

 “We would want some compensation for this boy, who was victimized by the bus driver,” Scarr said.

Gunta declined to comment.

Freitag also would not elaborate beyond the news release.

According to the release:

“Much has occurred quickly and in a very short period of time. We have taken swift, justified, appropriate and responsible responses to the incident.”

“The City of Janesville, its Common Council, Administration, and I personally have not, do not, and shall not directly or indirectly condone, permit, or tolerate any type of actions or statements, whether real or perceived, by Janesville employees that directly or indirectly constitute disrespect, rudeness, demeaning or questionable behavior, or hurtful conduct to any customer or member of the public.

“Racism simply will not be tolerated—not by the Janesville Transit System, not by the City of Janesville, and not by me.”

The bus driver, Mary Lesko, has retired effective Jan. 1 and is using accrued paid time off until her retirement date, Freitag said.

The family's attorney said the video proves the event was racist.

The video, recorded by a camera mounted at the front of the bus, shows the bus stopping to pick up a rider. The driver can be heard calling to the passengers behind her: “Hon, you're not disabled. Why don't you move and let that lady sit down.”

One rider, a white woman, immediately gets up and moves to the back of the bus.

Scarr's client, a black teen wearing a shirt with No. 31 on it, does not. When the teen indicates he does not need to move because someone else already has, the driver says: “I know, but you can move to the back, too, because you don't belong down here.”

The teen turns, and the driver yells, “Hey, off my bus, now.”

Shortly after, the bus driver radios headquarters and says she ejected a young man because he was "cussing" on the bus after she asked him to move from the elderly and disabled area.

The boy's voice is not audible on the video made available to The Gazette. His attorney acknowledges her client mumbles under his breath, saying something that Scarr said she can only hear as starting with an "F."

Scarr said the incident is racist because white people in the video continue to sit in the priority seating and because her client is forced to move even though the seats are not filled. She said she does not know whether the people in the priority seating are disabled or elderly, although they don't appear to be.

Freitag said that one white person sitting immediately behind the bus driver was not visible to the bus driver.

Scarr said she believes it is city policy that anyone can sit in priority seating unless the seats are full and an elderly or disabled person gets on the bus.

That policy could not be verified late Friday afternoon when all calls were referred to the city's manager office. Freitag, who has been city manager for two weeks, said Friday evening he does not know the policy.

Scarr said the bus driver's actions are racist, “especially when you say to a black person, 'You don't belong down here, go to the back of the bus.' It's a very, very sensitive issue, especially, from what we understand … there was no reason to move. He wasn't violating any policy by sitting where he was sitting.”

She said the young man also claims the driver treated him in a discriminatory manner on a prior occasion.

Scarr said she is still waiting for a response from the city's attorney.

The Gazette was not able to reach Lesko for comment.

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